Unpacking CMOS: Social Media and Multimedia Citation

Emily Fahey Technical Writing, Writing Tips

Last semester, while grading papers for a large undergraduate class, my husband came across an abundance of citation errors across dozens of papers. Now, citation can be tedious even for lovers of CMOS, such as myself, but what he found most frustrating was the way students were citing digital sources and information gathered on social media. Or rather, the way they weren’t citing those sources. 

For example, one paper mentioned a lecture recorded on Zoom, another referenced a YouTube video, and another included a tweet in the body of the paper but didn’t provide a citation beyond the Twitter handle. While the information that those students wanted to include may have been relevant, and then the professor said XYZ in a lecture recorded on 5/22 is not a citation.

Have you ever wanted to reference a tweet in an academic paper? CMOS has you covered with guidelines for social media citation! #writingtips Click To Tweet

I’m dating myself here, but back when I was in college I would never have dreamed of citing a YouTube video. Instagram didn’t exist yet, and this was still the era where having a Facebook account required an .edu email address. The only academic discussion that I recall was about Wikipedia and how it was unacceptable as a source citation but could be effectively used as a shortcut to find better sources. That’s about as nuanced as the conversation about digital source citation got in 2008!

So, this issue of my husband’s grading woes in 2021 got me thinking: In an age where so many of us are getting information from social media and online sources, what is the correct way to cite that information in an academic paper? How would you include a tweet in a bibliography? How do you address multimedia sources, such as recorded lectures, YouTube, and other audio-visual materials? 

When you get outside the realm of physical books, different types of digital and Internet sources abound. Thankfully, CMOS has guidelines for all of them. Let’s hone in on social media and multimedia citations specifically.

Social Media Citation

If referencing a post on social media is an appropriate argument for a paper, what is the best way to cite it? CMOS has different rules based on whether a social media source has been shared publicly versus in a private message. And this makes sense! Private content in a direct message is considered a form of personal communication and should be cited based on CMOS 14.214. For the purpose of this blog, let’s focus on information that is publicly shared on social media. We’ll also look at fictional academic papers to see how these sources could be used both in the body of the paper and in the citation.

Notes and Bibliography

For a citation in a note or bibliography, CMOS 14.209 recommends that you start with the name of the author of the post, if known, followed by their screen name in parentheses. If the given name is unknown, start with the screen name. In place of the title, you would use the text of the post, up to 160 characters, including spaces and capitalization, as in the original post. Then list the name of social media and the description, if relevant (for example, if it is a video or a caption) followed by the publish date. Finish the citation with the URL, if appropriate.

Whew, did you get all that? Let’s take a look at some examples of appropriately citing social media in notes or a bibliography.

Let’s say you are writing a paper on the way that social media can be used to amplify social justice issues. Referencing the #FreeBritney hashtag would be an appropriate way to demonstrate how social media brought wide attention and impact to the larger issue of conservatorship. Take a look at this example.

On “Britney’s Instagram: The Podcast,” hosts Tess Barker and Barbara Gray turned the phrase free Britney into a hashtag, which gave fans a way to advocate against conservatorship online. The immense social pressure that this movement generated resulted in the singer being allowed to select her own legal representation. On July 14, Spears confirmed this by tweeting: “Coming along, folks . . . coming along!!!!!! New with real representation today . . . I feel GRATITUDE and BLESSED !!!! Thank you to my fans who are supporting me . . . You have no idea what it means to me be [sic] supported by such awesome fans !!!! God bless you all !!!!!” (@britneyspears, July 14, 2021).

Now, let’s see how this academic paper should include the source in notes or a bibliography.

  1. Britney Spears (@britneyspears), “Coming along, folks . . . coming along!!!!!! New with real representation today . . . I feel GRATITUDE and BLESSED !!!! Thank you to my fans who are supporting me . . . You have no idea what it means to me be supported by such awesome fans !!!! God bless you all !!!!!”, Twitter, July 14, 2021. https://twitter.com/britneyspears/status/1415467114505195521

But what if you need to cite by author-date format in a reference list? CMOS 15.52 provides a guideline: In the reference list, you should include the real name and the screen name, if you have both. Then, in the text, cite the name under which the entry is listed. This will be the real name unless the screen name is the only one available. Repeat the year with the month and day in the reference list. Here is how you would cite the above example by author-date.

Spears, Britney (@britneyspears). 2021. “Coming along, folks . . . coming along!!!!!! New with real representation today . . . I feel GRATITUDE and BLESSED !!!! Thank you to my fans who are supporting me . . . You have no idea what it means to me be supported by such awesome fans !!!! God bless you all !!!!!” Twitter, July 14, 2021. https://twitter.com/britneyspears/status/1415467114505195521

Whether your source is on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or another social media site, you can rely on these CMOS guidelines for accurate citation in notes and bibliographies.

Multimedia Citation 

Let’s tackle the issue of online multimedia—particularly, YouTube—keeping in mind the student that wanted to reference a video in their paper for my husband’s class. CMOS 14.267 covers recommendations for citing videos, podcasts, and other online multimedia. Citations will typically include the publish or posting date and information about the original performance or source. If the multimedia was accessed via web browser, then a file format is not needed. However, if a downloadable file was used, then CMOS 14.264 (recorded performances and audiobooks) and CMOS 14.187 (electronic supplements or enhancements to journal articles) provide further clarification. 

Once again, I’ll share a sample excerpt from an imaginary paper and provide two ways to source it appropriately.

Notes and Bibliography

For citation in notes or bibliography, you’ll begin by naming the author, title, publish date, digital source, and the URL, if applicable. 

Let’s say you are in a sociology and gender class and you want to write a paper about gendered perspectives around money. One of your sources is a YouTube video that features Sallie Krawcheck, a digital financial advisor and cofounder of Ellevest, sharing her take on how men and women relate to money. See the following example.

In a Ladylike video on the As/Is channel on YouTube, Sallie Krawcheck talks about how men and women both talk about money in terms of water. Where men see money as a flowing river where the water comes and goes and the levels rise and fall naturally, women think of water like a pond and treat it as a finite resource that has to be hoarded and protected.

Did you know that CMOS has citation guides for multimedia? It is a helpful framework for when you want to cite sources such as recorded lectures or YouTube videos. #writingtips Click To Tweet

Now, let’s see how this academic paper should include the source in your notes.

  1. As/Is. “We Learn How to Invest Our Money ᐧ Ladylike.” Uploaded July 27, 2019, Los Angeles, California. YouTube video, 15:41. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRlTGewPWL4 

Chicago typically recommends that online videos only be included in your notes. However, if it is a source that you reference repeatedly or it is a crucial piece of a persuasive paper, then it can be listed in your bibliography. 

If you want to include it in a reference list by author-date, CMOS 15.57 provides guidelines. For our previous example, the reference would look like this:

As/Is. 2019. “We Learn How to Invest Our Money ᐧ Ladylike.” Uploaded July 27, 2019, Los Angeles, California. YouTube video, 15:41. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRlTGewPWL4

We’ve certainly come a long way, both in terms of electronic sources being more frequently used and acceptable in higher academia and the way that style guides have adapted to provide better instructions for citation. CMOS provides clear reference points for incorporating social media and multimedia citations in academic writing, so don’t be afraid to use them if it is appropriate or makes a good point in an academic paper. Just make sure you rely on CMOS so that you can impress your professor with an accurate citation!

Did you know that the Scribe Source provides academic editing? If you find some of the finer points of citation a challenge, our CMOS-loving editors can help you polish your paper and perfect your notes and bibliography.

About the Author

Emily started her career as a fundraising professional working in higher education and public media. She specializes in writing direct mail and email fundraising appeals, website copy, marketing materials, training manuals, and blog content. Emily first joined the team in 2014; she now coordinates all the Scribe Source’s writing projects.